Whether the neighborhood is industrial (seen here) or residential, Detroit’s LED streetlighting program is allowing businesses and residents to reclaim their city and its nighttime environment.
Public Lighting Authority of Detroit Whether the neighborhood is industrial (seen here) or residential, Detroit’s LED streetlighting program is allowing businesses and residents to reclaim their city and its nighttime environment.

The Motor City is bouncing back from decades of being the national poster child for urban decay and disinvestment. As memorably depicted in the 2012 “ruin porn” documentary Detropia, the city has faced unusually harsh financial and infrastructural challenges in recent years, including multisystem breakdowns in city services and a black market in stolen materials, with scavengers treating both private and public structures as fair game. The copper wiring in streetlights became a target when copper prices spiked at $3.70 per pound in mid-2007, up from $0.60 per pound in 2002. (At press time, in early 2015, the price fluctuates around $2.50 per pound.) Compounding the problem, says Odis Jones, CEO of the Public Lighting Authority (PLA) of Detroit, was an antique system of serial wiring in which the failure of one lamp meant that a succession of lamps would go out like a string of Christmas-tree lights. With scrappers pouncing on the copper coils found at the base of each pole, an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the city’s streetlights were out. The broken-windows theory linking civic disrepair with crime and fear, Jones observes, found strong confirmation in Detroit’s darkened blocks.

Jones, a native Detroiter, returned home from a position as Cincinnati’s economic development director to head the PLA, which was created in 2013 by Michigan Public Act 392 as an independent entity, distinct from the city’s Public Lighting Department. In his second day on the job—July 18—the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. Fortunately, in December 2013, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court held that the PLA is legally separate from the city with an independent revenue stream and resources untouched by the bankruptcy, so Jones was able to fend off creditors and quickly form a partnership with the state Treasury Department and Citibank that enabled the replacement of both aboveground and underground equipment, returning light to long-darkened streets. This LED program is a critical catalyst in Detroit’s return to livable conditions.

In addition to exchanging high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps for LEDs, the PLA is replacing the vulnerable copper wiring with less salable (yet more conductive) aluminum, which Jones calls “a strategic decision to disincentivize thievery.” Fixtures are also being wired with multiple circuits to eliminate the possibility of a daisy-chain failure effect. About $90 million of the total $185 million project, Jones says, is being spent on underground work. He also credits state legislators with cleaning up the scrap trade through tighter identification laws and checks mailed to sellers’ addresses, replacing point-of-sale cash payments. “If you show up at a junkyard with property that says it belongs to the PLA,” he says, “we’re going to take your picture, so you might as well smile.”

One of Detroit's residential neighborhoods with new LED streetlighting.
Public Lighting Authority of Detroit One of Detroit's residential neighborhoods with new LED streetlighting.

Detroit is diverse, made up of more than 300 neighborhoods, including historic districts where ornamental pole and luminaire designs are the norm. The PLA spends about $1,000 per basic pole for an LED conversion, Jones says. In neighborhoods that prefer alternative designs, neighborhood associations have to pick up the difference for the distinctively styled poles. (The Sherwood Forest historic district, for example, is using crowdfunding to raise the money.) And this LED conversion project is boosting the regional economy, as 80 percent of its contractors are located in the city. One local entrepreneur, Carla Walker-Miller, the provider of approximately 20,000 of the luminaires, won her contract in a national bid.

The PLA is also partnering with a technical school, the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP), to provide students with an opportunity to learn about the engineering theory associated with LED lighting, which could also lead to job opportunities. “With unemployment being so high at the time in the city of Detroit,” Jones says, “we wanted to make sure, if we’re going to do a quarter-billion-dollar project, that we’re building capacity here at home. … Our local union IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] has exerted an effort to hire these young people once they graduate. It’s a real treat to see how the project has not only affected the overall lighting in the city but has an impact on our sense of place and purpose.”

Construction has started on three of Detroit’s major thoroughfares (Grand River, Woodward, and Gratiot Avenues), and where new lights have been installed, Jones has heard drivers claim they “can read a newspaper on these streets.” Feedback from businesses, social media commentators, and police officers has also hailed the light quality, which is roughly twice as bright as the old 75W HPS lamps. Where new poles are going in, the LEDs also allow wider spacing while still meeting a residential standard of 0.4 footcandles (0.4 lumens per square foot).

And thanks to falling prices and shrewd negotiation, these upgrades are coming at a bargain. “Given the nature of the project, we have been able in our bidding process to drive down the cost of LEDs,” Jones says. “We’re buying LEDs for $100. Initially, when we went out to bid, it was $600 or so. Now, for the 150W equivalent, we’re paying $134. For a 250W equivalent LED, the initial price was about $700. Through our bidding process, we’re now paying approximately $250 per LED [streetlight]. So when you have competition and you unleash the entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity of America—but more specifically here in this particular marketplace—the citizens win.”


Scale of Program 
65,000 total streetlights being installed, relighting all Detroit neighborhoods by the end of 2015 and major thoroughfares by the end of 2016.

Approximately 42,000 new luminaires as of April 2015, ahead of schedule.
Overhead residential schedule is complete one year early.
Replacements on collector streets and major thoroughfares are approximately 40 percent complete, projected to be 100 percent complete on collectors by the end of 2015 and 100 percent complete on thoroughfares by the end of 2016.

$185 million in bonds sold by the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit (which was funded with a $12.5 million annual earmark from the city’s utility tax).
A favorable interest rate of 4.53 percent allowed the PLA to exceed its original bond-sales goal of $160 million.

Energy Savings
$20 million annual energy costs projected to drop to $3.4 million when conversion is complete.

150W equivalent LED lamps by Walker-Miller Energy Services (in partnership with Eaton’s Cooper Lighting), Cree (XSP Series Area Luminaires), and Leotek for neighborhoods.
250W equivalent LED lamps for collector streets.
400W equivalent LED lamps for eight major thoroughfares.
85 percent of streetlights are being wired overhead, 15 percent underground.

Major Players
Public Lighting Authority of Detroit
Motor City Electric
Corby Energy Services
State Line Construction
Walker-Miller Energy Services
Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 58)
Department of the Treasury, State of Michigan